Benjamin-Constant; Orientalism and Beyond

At the turn of the 19th century Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant (1845-1902) was one of the world’s foremost painters of Orientalist scenes and society portraits. Initially it was his lavish paintings of North African and Middle Eastern seraglio that earned him fame. His Paris studio was said to have been adorned with props and costumes gathered during his trips to Morocco and southern Spain. Benjamin-Constant and his Orientalist peers provided European eyes with a risqué peep through the harem keyhole into a fantasy world of the exotic and erotic. No doubt today some people would casually dismiss his work as racist and sexist, but I believe such a simplistic evaluation is lazy presentism. It also fails to acknowledge the fact that artists have always enjoyed depicting far-off places and the exotic characters and conduct encountered there.

The artisans of classical antiquity depicted naked Greek and Roman gods cavorting, and the artists of the Italian, German, and Dutch Renaissance portrayed Biblical scenes in which someone somewhere invariably has their kit off. The later painters of the Italian Baroque in particular filled their canvas’ with erotic content; some blatant, some shrouded in symbolism. These pictures may have been paid for by the Holy Roman Church for devotional purposes but the ancillary function was to titillate the viewer.

Perhaps the most popular motif found in Renaissance and Baroque art is the Madonna and child, more often than not the Madonna Lactans. New mothers do spend a lot of their time breast-feeding as Rubens, Lucas Cranach, Fouquet, Raphael and even Hieronymus Bosch were always keen to remind us. Of course, given a choice between Madonna and Child breastfeeding and Madonna and Child burping the former was always going to make the more popular painting. George Orwell said that ‘All art is propaganda’. He might just have accurately said ‘All art is sex’.

Benjamin-Constant’s art reflects a moment in the history of tastes and ideas, and his paintings should be appreciated with this in mind. Above all else his work is beautiful, not simply because the sitter or subject is beautiful but because it is beautifully executed. To me his paintings should be seen as a celebration of women and female sensuality rather than exploitation. That said, there is a clear difference between a sexualised figure of a loving mother and a blatantly sexy image of a saucy temptress but anyone who still believes that all the women in Benjamin-Constant’s paintings are cowed and compliant should look at the artist’s wider catalogue. His ‘Judith’ and ‘Empress Theodore’ are not studies of submissive girls, they are paeans to powerful women.

As seductive as his Orientalist paintings are, Benjamin-Constant should not just be thought of as a painter of exotic fantasies. Alongside John Singer Sargent, Paul César Helleu and Carolus-Duran he was one of the pre-eminent portraitists of the Belle Epoque – the favourite artist of the English aristocracy – whose patrons included Queen Victoria and the Pope. North American tycoons queued-up with the patriarchs of the English nobility to commission portraits of their wives and daughters.

Today, the rich and famous dream of being photographed by Mario Testino or Annie Leibovitz, back in 1900 they wanted to be painted by Benjamin-Constant. His society portraits brilliantly convey the individual personality of the sitter and that is not something that can be said of all famous portraiture. I am always amazed at the enduring popularity of the formulaic studio works of Lely, Kneller and Wissing whose sitters, with their regulation bulging eyes and big noses, all look virtually identical.

Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant was awarded a gold medal at the Paris Salon in 1896, made a commander of the Legion d’Honneur, and with Jean-Léon Gérôme foundered the Société des Peintres Orientalistes Français. Paintings by Benjamin-Constant are held in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Musée d’Orsay in Paris and the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg.

by Gavin Claxton © Academy Fine Paintings Ltd 2022